Pushing beyond the boundaries

Imagine the Edmonton Oilers getting to the Western Conference final while playing one forward short on the ice each and every game.
Or how about the Kansas Jayhawks making it to the NCAA Final Four while not ever being allowed to use a point guard in the March Madness tournament?
What about the Dallas Cowboys getting to the NFC Championship game despite having to go without their left tackle on offence or one of their cornerbacks on defence every play?
That’s about as close a comparison I can make to what was accomplished by the Boundary Waters Dragon Boat Club team this past weekend at the 12th-annual Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival.
Full disclosure: I’m on the team and was one of the 16 paddlers who tested our mettle against the rest of the field.
At this point, I’ll go ahead and mention that as far as our team could figure, every other crew on hand in Bemidji was sporting a complete roster of 20 paddlers.
That’s exactly one-fifth more paddle power than we had available due to some team members having prior commitments.
We gathered on Friday afternoon at our tent site right by Lake Bemidji to get in our official team practice in preparation for that evening’s Sprint Cup races.
A field of 14 teams put themselves on the line to see who could cover the 200m course in the fastest combined time in two separate heats.
Starting in the third of the eight heats during the evening, we took on the well-reputed Wavemakers along with Oars of Fury.
Knowing the start was crucial in such a short race, our crew blasted as one collective unit off the starting line, desperately churning up the water with every ounce of energy in following the pace set by our phenomenal front end tandem of Daniela Klicper and Caryn Myers.
With a final burst, we hit the finish line with no idea who had crossed first as all three boats seem to do so simultaneously.
Heading back to the dock, we keenly listened for the announcement, which soon echoed across the water.
First place: Boundary Waters, in a time of 1:05 flat, just .87 seconds ahead of the Wavemakers and 1.6 ahead of Oars of Fury.
We were astounded at first, then exhilarated–but our night’s work was far from done.
Not wanting to be one-hit wonders, we set our sights on our appearance in the eighth and final heat against Beaver Fever and Security Bank Banccaneers.
If our first start was strong, our second one was like Popeye getting his spinach fix.
While keeping our focus where it needed to be–in our own boat and straight ahead–we knew this time when we hit the end, there was no doubt we had come out on top.
To find out we had lowered our previous time to 1:03.99 led to a wave of triumph washing over our crew as we ended up third fastest overall in each of our two heats to wind up third overall with a total time of 2:08.99.
Full marks to Winnipeg’s River City Prostate Paddlers, who defended their title with a clocking of 2:05.59–but despite our manpower disadvantage, finishing just 3.4 seconds back of the winners made it clear we had made them earn it.
A team dinner that evening was abuzz with excitement at our prospects for the main event races the next day, which would test us even further with the course extended to 450m and a full field of 54 teams involved.
We woke the next morning to find our team–and, specifically, my bench buddy in our boat, Evan Caul–were celebrities.
The front page of the Bemidji Pioneer was adorned with a full-colour shot of Evan hoisting high the head of our bright orange and fully fantastic dragon mascot, Guoji.
Very cool stuff, indeed.
The first of two regulation heats on Saturday, the eighth one of the morning overall, carried with it the extra pressure of Boundary Waters wanting to defend its Civic Cup championship from the previous year involving all teams who revolve around charitable foundations.
That meant there were four teams in that heat which would decide the Civic Cup–ourselves and three teams targeting us with hopes of dethroning the titleholders.
Hope may spring eternal, but fades quickly when staring into the face of an almost perfect execution when the moment counts the most.
We poured everything into our start, found our race pace
Please see “Pushing,” B4
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after the initial launch and then found an extra gear down the final 50m, with our unity and timing as good as it’s ever been.
Upon cracking the finish line, we dared ourselves a peek around–and saw no sign of any of the other three boats around us.
Our intensely dedicated coach Annely Thorstad motioned for silence as they announced the placings and times, seeing how we matched up against the previous best times of the day, all in the 2:30 range or higher.
First place, Boundary Waters. 2:26.05.
Cue the roars of delight, fist pumps and unabashed hugs and high-fives. We left Wavemakers in our wake, more than five seconds behind in second at 2:31.22.
The Civic Cup was coming back home with us.
Almost even better was getting commentary from spectators indicating we were as much as three boat lengths ahead at one point and how they couldn’t understand how we did it with four less in our boat than the other crews.
But our work was far from done, despite having the fourth-fastest time of any team in the morning heats–and we learned quickly how things can change in this sport that demands power, but more crucially technique and togetherness.
Our second heat, the 20th of 28 on the day, came in the early afternoon and we headed out to the starting line brimming with positivity and facing three other teams who had been much slower than our morning mark.
Another good start had us out front early until we heard what our numerous hours of training had taught us not to hear–the drumbeats and stroke calls of our opponents, in this case, the Blazing Hosers to our left and the CrossFit Bemidji WODder Warriors to our right.
A good part of our team forgot to stay at our pace and chose to go at the pace of the drumbeats–a terrible idea when you’re 16 versus 20.
It was inevitable–our boat emptied its gas tank way too early and were burned out with 150m remaining.
We scrambled across the line to find we had lost our first race in two days, ending up third–a whopping nine seconds and a hair slower than the morning at 2:35.06.
The way the festival was set up, the top four fastest collective times raced in the Gold Division final, while the 21st through 24th seeds were in the Silver final and the 41st through 44th seeds were in the Bronze final.
So the wait to see if we would hang onto our fourth-place spot was inexorable, to put it mildly.
It came down to the fourth-last heat, with Bemidji High School’s Nordic Whitecaps the last realistic threat to withstand.
They finished third in their heat, but that was irrelevant–2:31.65 or better and we were going home.
The man who epitomizes healthy living on our crew, Dr. Mike Wu, and myself crouched by the scoreboard waiting for the announcement of times.
Nordic Whitecaps. 2:32.52. There has rarely been a hand clasp and hug between two more relieved dudes. We were going to get to go for gold.
In the final, the five-time defending champion and 10-time overall champion Hydraheads and the neon-green marine aces from WikiWki Ohana were side by side in Lanes 3 and 4 as the top two seeds.
That left the Prostate Paddlers as the third seed in Lane 2 and ourselves in Lane 1–no left-side distractions this time and 16 Dragons famished for redemption after our afternoon calamity.
The race that followed saw us get the start we wanted, but not the finish, as the Winnipeggers caught and passed us in the last half as the effects of three intense races with a shorthanded squad finally took its toll.
But we stayed in time, we felt better and, in the end, we were better–not position-wise (fourth), but time-wise at 2:31.99 — three seconds and change better than the second race.
We proudly roared upon pronouncement of our name on the P.A. and gladly shook hands with the three medal-winning teams who finished ahead of us–and not by a wide margin, either (Hydraheads, 2:22.94; WikiWiki Ohana, 2:24.77; Prostate Paddlers, 2:26.85).
It was a day of proving that adversity can impact you, but overcoming adversity can define you.
We left Bemidji knowing we had held our own with the best of the best and also sent a message.
These dragons are on the cusp of great things. The road ahead is etched with promise.
There’s no turning back now.